In 1936, Australia required a general purpose aircraft for manufacture by the newly-formed Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC). Wing Commander L.J. Wackett led the expedition and the North American NA-16 became the aircraft of choice for Australia. CAC created a modified version of this aircraft which came to be known as the Wirraway (Aboriginal for 'challenge').
The North American NA-16 became popular for its role as an all-purpose trainer aircraft and subsequently became known as the Texan in America and the Harvard in Great Britain. The modifications which Australia made to the NA-16 were extensive to say the least. The original single wing-gun was replaced by twin .303 (7.7mm) Vickers Mk V machine guns which were mounted on the nose and were synchronised to fire through the propeller arc. The aircraft's armament also included a single Vickers K machine gun on a flexible mount in the rear cockpit. Later, camera and radio installations were introduced, and the wing and tail units were redesigned and strengthened for dive-bombing.
On the 27 March 1939, Flight Lieutenant 'Boss' Walker test flew the first Wirraway, A20-3, and the first three RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Wirraways were accepted in July 1939. By September 1941, 45 Wirraways were being manufactured per month and in June 1942, the initial order for 620 aircraft was fulfilled. Despite the fulfilment of this order another 135 Wirraways were produced when production ended in 1946. The CAC Wirraway had many different designations, these included:
- CA-1 40 built
- CA-3 60 built
- CA-5 32 built
- CA-7 100 built
- CA-8 200 built
- CA-9 188 built
- CA-10 (This designation was a bomber version which never eventuated)
- CA-16 135 built
Throughout 1940-41, Wirraways of No 21 Squadron were deployed to Malaya, Wirraways of No 24 Squadron were deployed to Rabaul and Wirraways of No 12 Squadron were based in Darwin. On 20 January 1942, 8 Wirraways of No 24 Squadron, in a desperate attempt to save Rabaul, engaged a force of over 100 Japanese fighters and bombers. Although it was terribly outclassed by its Japanese rivals, the Wirraway remained in frontline service as a stop-gap fighter until Australia was no longer under threat from Japan. History was made on 26 December 1942 when Pilot Officer J. Archer, flying A20-103, spotted a Japanese A6M Zero fighter aircraft around 1000 feet below him. He promptly dived on it and opened fire, sending it hurtling into the sea near Gona. Archer was the only pilot to shoot down an enemy plane in a Wirraway.
Wirraways continued to serve as trainer and communication aircraft until 1959. Today, restored Wirraways can be found on static displays and continue to participate in air shows around Australia and New Zealand. Although the Wirraway is somewhat considered to be an emergency and stop-gap fighter it performed above and beyond the call and duty.
- Later versions had no Vickers Mk V guns, but had provision for 2 × 0.303 (7.7 mm) Browning AN-M2 machine guns mounted under the outer wing panels.
- Aircraft only flown with bombs if no observer is carried.
- Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (1940). Wirraway Overhaul and Repair Manual. RAAF Publication No. 76. Melbourne, Australia.
- Wikipedia entry